Ep. 110: The Monthly Debrief – March Looking to April 2019

April 16, 2019

In this Monthly Debrief podcast, EdChoice’s Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier and Director of Policy Jason Bedrick discuss the latest school choice happenings in the states. They talk about everything from school choice legislation introduced in Nevada to expanding Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program.

Michael Chartier: Well, thank you, everybody, and welcome to another EdChoice Chat. On the phone, we’ve got our policy director,

Jason Bedrick: Lauren Hodge is out on assignment in South Carolina this week. So, she is doing good work down there, potentially testifying about their education savings account bill down there. The hearing was on again, off again, on again, off again, and I think it’s on again as of right now. So, she is down there tackling that. But again, Jason and I are going to give you sort of a look back at the month of March, and we’re going to talk about what happened in March, and maybe a quick look forward about things that we could expect to see in April. So, Jason, there’s no need to banter back and forth. I think that you could probably just get right into the states that you want to cover.

Jason Bedrick: I think the biggest news is Florida where we have competing voucher legislation. So, a lot of states, it’s the question of, “Will they, or won’t they?” Florida is exciting in that the question is, “Which will they?” So, we’ve got the Florida Senate Education Committee passed SB 7070. It’s an omnibus bill. So, it does a whole bunch of different things, but one of the things it does is it creates a school voucher program for low-income students, and it would be about up to 15,000 vouchers available in the first year, and it would grow over time. The main purpose of this bill, as the authors explain it, is that it would be funding the wait list for the tax-credit scholarship program, which is currently available to nearly 100,000 low-income students in the state, but they’ve got a wait list. There’s a number of students who weren’t able to participate. This would be helping with that wait list. Although the difference is instead of a tax-credit scholarship, this would be a directly, publicly funded program. The Florida House Educations and Appropriations Committees both passed HB 7075, which would also create a voucher for low- and middle-income students with a cap that’s about twice as big.
So, it’s about 28,000 students in the first year. Then, it would also grow over time. So, it’s a little bit more of an ambitious program, and there are now negotiations between the House and the Senate, and we’ll see which of these two pass and make it all the way to the governor’s desk. Personally, I’m hoping for the more ambitious of the two that would serve twice as many students for obvious reasons.

Michael Chartier: Jason, can I ask a question about that? So, obviously, maybe some of the listeners might be sitting here thinking, “Well, Jason, you just talked about a voucher program. Wasn’t there a voucher program that Florida Supreme Court struck down in Bush v. Holmes?” What’s the thought on passing a voucher program?

Jason Bedrick: The Bush v. Holmes decision was a very narrow decision and also one that was highly controversial because it was so poorly reasoned. Essentially, Bush v. Holmes was not a Blaine Amendment case like many of the other cases [inaudible 00:03:34] a decision. It was decided on the uniformity clause, which says that the Florida State Constitution says that the state of Florida must provide a free and uniform education for all students in the state, but nobody really knows what uniform means, and the state Supreme Court didn’t decide what it means. Does it mean uniformity when it comes to funding? Is it uniformity in terms of the curriculum? Uniformity in terms of the number of hours that you have each subject or hours in the day? No one is really quite sure what uniform means, especially when you have special education, and you’ve got some schools that might have a focus on STEM, others that might have a focus on arts and music. So, nobody really knows what it means. What they essentially said was, “Well, we can’t be running a publicly funded separate system of schools.” Somehow, this didn’t apply to charters, but they struck down the vouchers with that. So, there has been a lot of skepticism about this decision in the decade since it was brought down, but I think the main change that everyone’s looking at is the makeup of the state Supreme Court.

The new governor has had the opportunity to fill a few vacancies on the court due to aging out of the existing members in the court aging out, and so, now, the court is much more solidly conservative and contains members who have a history of supporting school choice and being skeptical of the Bush v. Holmes decision. So, there is a very strong feeling in the legislature and the Governor’s office, and I think just in the political establishment, left and right, generally, that were another lawsuit to go to the state Supreme Court, there would be a very different decision than Bush v. Holmes, and it would be upheld. So, I think that’s a part of the reason that the legislators are much more emboldened to be pushing a publicly funded voucher program as opposed to a privately-funded tax-credit scholarship program at this time.

Michael Chartier: So, they’re not shying away from a potential lawsuit? They understand that, that’s a potential outcome, is that they may wind up in litigations, and that is sort of factored into this as it were?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, and at this point, I would say they welcome it.

Michael Chartier: OK. Well, there you go. Welcoming to get sued. That’s not something that happens every day, but it is the great state of Florida, and they are one of the leaders in educational choice. So, we wish them good luck.

Jason Bedrick: Absolutely, and I’m sure that EdChoice, our good friend, Leslie Hiner, will be writing an amicus brief if and when there is a lawsuit. So, we will keep you posted, listeners.

Michael Chartier: Awesome. Well, thank you, Jason. Sorry for that detour. I apologize.

Jason Bedrick: No problem. I’ll move on slightly north and west to Arkansas where the state senate passed SB 539. That would create a tax-credit scholarship program similar to the one that they have currently operating in Florida. They already have a small voucher program. So, students who are using one would not be eligible to use the other, but this would be helping low-income children. So, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Although, it’s a very small tax credit. It’s only $3 million. So, we’re talking a few hundred kids. This is, in some sense, more of a pilot program than anything else. In Maryland, they passed a budget that includes a $5.5 million appropriation that’s up from $3 million. So, again, their low-income voucher is still a pilot program, but it is growing. So, there’s that. In Mississippi, we had had a really tumultuous year where an expansion to the education savings account, which serves students with special needs and has a wait list, the expansion was killed, but in the 11th hour, they passed a bill that actually was primarily about various construction projects, and apparently, an additional two million dollars in funding was added to this other bill for the education savings account, and that’s approximately 300 new seats in the program to help these students with special needs get access to an education that works right for them.

Apparently, there were a number of legislators who did not actually read the bill before voting on it. They thought they were only voting on construction projects, they say, and didn’t realize that in addition to helping special interests with their construction projects, they would also be helping families with special needs kids, and that, for some of these legislators, was a bridge too far. So, there were a number of motions for reconsideration filed, but it appears that it’s likely to actually get signed into law. So, some may have qualms with the way that this is passed. It’s certainly frustrating as a supporter of school choice to see that the original bill failed and that it was only passed in this manner. as a former legislator, this is how the sausage gets made, and if you’re not going to read the legislation before you vote on it, you really can’t complain. It was available for everybody to read in advance. This was certainly not a surprise for the committee when they added it. The fact there were members on the floor of the House that just didn’t notice it doesn’t speak particularly well of those who didn’t catch it. In any case, it is what it is.

It’s good for those 300 students with special needs to have access to it, and we’re hopeful that our friends at Empower Mississippi and the others in the state who are working on this issue are going to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program, show how it’s serving these families, and particularly, these students so well, and that they’ll be able to, going forward, garner the sort of support necessary to actually continue expanding the program without these sorts of shenanigans.

Michael Chartier: Jason, you’ve mentioned that there were calls for reconsideration. Would you explain what that means to our listeners out there? Like I said, we like to try to give definitions to some of these terms of art. So, would you want to kind of explain kind of what the reconsideration process is and kind of what the means to folks?

Jason Bedrick: Sure. The rules obviously are different in every state legislature. Not even just every state, even every body adopts its own rules, but generally speaking, those who voted on the prevailing side of a motion have a window of time in which they can move reconsideration. So, let’s say a bill passed, and there was somebody who voted for it, and for whatever reason within this time period— sometimes 24 hours, 48 hours a week, whatever, depending on the legislature—if they change their mind, and they were on the prevailing side, they move that they take another vote on that bill. So, there were a number of those who voted in favor and said, “Wait a second. I didn’t realize that was there. I want to change my vote.” So, that’s what a motion for reconsideration would do.

Michael Chartier: Got it. Thank you for that. Just wanted to make sure everyone kind of understood on our listening side what we were talking about. So, yes, thank you, Jason. I’ll let you get back to your daily scheduled tasks.

Jason Bedrick: Yep. Sure. So, I want to hit three other states. One is Oklahoma where the senate passed SB 407. That’s a bill that would expand the state’s tax-credit scholarship program from where it is currently at 3.5 million up to 10 million, so a rather significant expansion, although not as expansive as the bill originally was, which was 40 million. So, it was scaled down considerably, but still would practically triple the size of the program almost. So, that’s something exciting, and then, in Utah, the Utah House of Representatives passed SB 171. That would create a tax-credit scholarship for students with special needs, and that has gone over to the Senate. Now, we have New Hampshire. So, the good news in New Hampshire is that a bill that has been filed to repeal the state’s tax-credit scholarship failed. There was also a bill that is a little sneakier. It doesn’t directly repeal the tax-credit scholarship program. What it does is it creates a new program that would help students that are currently in public school with some additional learning. I think it was like job training and stuff like that, but as its revenue source, it would take the tax credits that are currently right now, only used for the scholarship organizations that fund low-income students going to private schools.

So, at least there in New Hampshire, I think there was a sense that they couldn’t outright appeal the program. There was too much popular support for school choice. What they would do instead is they would just … You’ve got this bucket that’s all meant for these low-income kids in New Hampshire’s case. They put a spigot in the side, and now, they’re taking out of that bucket for this other purpose. That actually was tabled. Now, a tabling motion means that we are putting this aside to discuss later. So, we’re not voting yes, and we’re not voting no. We’re just talking about it later. But most legislators understand that a tabling motion is usually the death of that piece of legislation. In the case in New Hampshire, it would take a super majority to take something off the table, at least once it passes a certain deadline. So, that bill is likely dead, but there is talk that a similar provision might be added to the budget, and then the difficulty there is would the governor veto the budget over this or not. So, that’s something that’s yet to be seen.

The governor has been very vocal that he does not want anything that rolls back school choice in the budget. There’s a good chance that he’s going to veto the first budget anyway due to other disagreements between the governor and the legislature over provisions that aren’t even related to school choice or even education policy at all. So, we’ll see what happens in the second round of negotiations over the budget. Hopefully, this gets left on the cutting room floor. The local school choice coalition was offering other proposals. They said, “Hey, we will support a direct appropriation for this new program that you want. Just don’t fund it out of the pockets of low-income families that are trying to provide their children with a better education that’s more tailored to their needs.” They said, “If you even want to have a portion of these tax credits … ” Currently, they’ve got about $5 million in tax credits, but they haven’t been using them entirely.
So, they said, “If you want to have our unused credits, we’d be happy to let you use those.” There are a number of different compromises that were offered, but the other side was adamant they did not want any of those compromises, which really showed that what they really wanted was not this new program because they were offered that. What they really wanted was to undermine school choice, which is it’s really unfortunate, and we will be keeping an eye on that situation and keeping our listeners in the know about what’s going on.

Michael Chartier: That is a very unfortunate situation up there. Obviously, anytime you want to take away scholarships from kids that are utilizing that, it’s something to certainly watch and stop if possible. So, thank you for that update.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, and I should also note before I pass the baton over to you, we had been keeping our listeners apprised of a number of bills in different states as they were passing committees, and even in some cases, some chambers, but all of the school choice legislation in Georgia, in Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina failed to be acted upon before the deadline for what’s called, in most states, “crossover,” which is the deadline for bills that are in the House go over to the Senate or bills that started in the Senate can go over to the House. If they don’t act on those bills before a certain point, then it’s essentially like the bill was voted no. So, those bills are not alive this year, but we will continue to monitor those states and, again, keep you posted.

Michael Chartier: Thank you. So, Jason, are they mostly dead, or are they all the way dead? If we Princess Bride it, where are they?

Jason Bedrick: So, let’s call them mostly dead.

Michael Chartier: Mostly dead.

Jason Bedrick: I would say more so even than The Princess Bride, right, where they’re able to revive him, but in these cases, they’re unlikely to be revived, but it is possible that they could attached as amendments to other bills if they are germane, which is to say if they are of a similar topic, close enough for that legislative chamber. And that, of course, varies from state to state and even chamber to chamber. Some chambers have a history of very narrowly interpreting germaneness. Others have a much more flexible approach. For example, we saw in Mississippi, they take a much more flexible approach. In Florida, they have some bills that are just … If it has anything to do with education, we allow it in the education omnibus bill. New Hampshire is usually a little tighter in the House, a little looser in the Senate. I’m familiar with Arizona as well where, for germaneness, they want to see that the original bill is actually modifying the same statutes that any amendment would be addressing. So, it does vary from state to state. So, I can’t give a blanket, “Yes, these are dead, or no, they’re not.” I would say those bills themselves in their existing form are pretty much dead, but we could see bills that are very similar to them possibly attended to other legislation that is still very much alive.

Michael Chartier: Got it. You’re stealing my thunder. You defined “germane” and “tabled.” So, you’re taking away my questions. Geez.

Jason Bedrick: Well, I’m learning. I’m learning to anticipate.

Michael Chartier: Excellent. I like to hear that. So, I’ll cover some of the remainder of the states. I’ll cover one of Lauren’s states, actually South Carolina, where she is right now. There are two bills down in South Carolina. Both are education savings accounts. They are companion bills, which means they’re the same bills, but one starts in the House, and one starts in the Senate, and hopefully, the idea is that they sort of meet in the middle. The first one is House Bill 3681. That bill has 63 sponsors, including the Speaker of the House. That bill’s currently sitting in the Ways and Means Committee and has also been referred to the Education Committee. Our fiscal guru, Dr. Marty Lueken is down there, and I believe if they are still having the hearing, he will testify down there on the fiscal impact of HB 3681. The companion bill to that is Senate Bill 556, and that’s also in the Education Committee awaiting a hearing. So, we will continue to monitor South Carolina, and hopefully, Lauren will have some good reporting back to us when she comes back from South Carolina.
We’ll move over to a state that I was just in, the Hawkeye State, Iowa. There’s kind of a dearth of school choice bills there, mostly a couple of education savings accounts. One is, so, the Iowa Senate Education Committee released Senate File 547. That could create an education savings account for students with special needs. That’s currently awaiting the subcommittee hearing because they’ve got subcommittees there in Iowa before they move onto the full committees. Those are usually made up of three individuals in the Senate. Over in the House side, there’s House File 663. That would also create a savings account grant for students who attend non-public schools. So, as long as a student was enrolled in a non-public school, they could receive funds that would go towards their education at that non-public school as well as a variety of other educational expenses, but you would need to be enrolled in that non-public school to receive that grant if House File 663 were to pass. The bill that’s made it sort of furthest in the process was introduced by Senator Jerry Behn, and that’s Senate File 372. That bill would create an education savings account grant, likewise, for students that attended those non-public schools.

That actually received both a subcommittee hearing and a hearing on the full Education Committee, passed both of those, and is currently awaiting the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing there. No date yet to be determined for when that might receive a hearing. So, we will wait and continue to monitor that, but it did pass both the subcommittee and the full Education Committee in the Senate. That, I believe, is actually the furthest that an education savings account bill has made it in the state of Iowa. So, that’s certainly something to be commended and watched. I do know that there’s additional discussions on their STO program. It’s their tax-credit scholarship program in Iowa. I do know that there’s discussions, potentially, in the budget for increasing the cap of that program. No hard discussions that I’m aware of on that currently, adding pen to paper, but I know that there’s talk of increasing that. Because there is such a great demand for school choice and the tax-credit program in Iowa, but I do know that they’re looking on raising the cap on the donations to the STO program.

Additionally, the state of Nevada, the Silver State, has a couple of education choice legislation being introduced. One is sort of a… would be removing some portions of the educational choice scholarship program, also known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It’s the tax-credit scholarship program in Nevada. That was introduced by the entire Nevada Assembly Committee on Education. It’s Assembly Bill 458, and simply, what that would do is it would remove the automatic escalator clause for the tax-credit Program. Currently, that program is allowed to grow at 10 percent per year, as long as 90 percent of the cap on the donations were reached. That bill would remove that so that the legislature, every two years, would have to allow for more donation caps to take place. So, we would continue to watch that. That would obviously lessen the amount of students, automatically, that would be allowed to use the program, and remember, Nevada meets every two years. So, they couldn’t jigger with that in sort of a short session as it were in most states. In most states, there’s a budget session, which is the long session, a short session, just generally takes care of some housekeeping business. They don’t have that. So, they would have to either be called back into special session, and or they’d have to wait those two years to go back into full session to raise the cap on those donations.

So, we’ll continue to monitor that. There are currently two bills that would deal with ESAs for victims of bullying or cyberbullying. There’s Assembly Bill 396. It was introduced by Assemblyman Chris Edwards, and like I said, children that were either bullied or cyberbullied in public schools would sort of be able to receive an education savings account to get a different alternative education. There’s also Assembly Bill 380, which would basically accomplish the same thing. There are some minute differences between those two bills, but those would, generally speaking, accomplish the same sorts of things, and that’s Assembly Bill 380, and that has joint sponsors from both the Assembly and the Senate. And lastly, there’s a bill, Senate Bill 404, and that would sort of create a tax-credit scholarship, kind of an ESA-funded program for folks to utilize for career and technical education. That’s currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Education Committee, but it’d be a very, stripped down, sort of tax credit funded type ESA, just for career and technical education providers, but that is some form of educational choice.

Sort of the last state that I’m going to cover with really no legislation involved right now is the state of West Virginia. Their session is over with no school choice legislation passed or implemented, but one of the governor’s priorities, Governor Jim Justice, priorities was to give public school teachers a raise, and we talked in previous podcasts that, essentially, the Senate had a big omnibus bill. They passed pay raises with a whole host of education reforms, including educational choice. That bill was sent over to the West Virginia House of Delegates, and the whole bill was sort of indefinitely tabled, and so, there was no pay raise that was passed or educational choice programs that were passed. The governor has called for a special session on “education betterment.” So, that includes a whole host of educational things. One of them could be educational choice as well as that teacher raises. So, right now, there is sort of a listening tour across the state where educational stakeholders are giving testimony to the Department of Education about what they want to see included in the that education betterment special session. So, we will continue to monitor that as that comes across, as that moves forward, and we get closer to the dates of that special session.

So, I think that’s a pretty good overview of school choice legislation across the country, especially from March and a little bit of look ahead of what’s going to happen in April. So, Jason, do you have anything else that you want to add before I close out this podcast?

Jason Bedrick: That’s it for me this week. The first half of the year is done, most of the legislative year that is. Most of the states have hit their crossover dates, and that’s where you have the biggest culling of legislation. So, going forward we’ll only have the bills that had enough popular support and legislative support really to make it from one chamber over into the other chamber. That’s when legislative bodies start negotiating with each other over which things pass. There’s lots of horse trading going on behind the scenes, and again, we will keep all of our faithful listeners posted as to the progress of all these bills.

Michael Chartier: That’s perfect. Thank you for that. I do want to, before we sign off, wish a speedy recovery to Jacob here who handles a lot of our technical stuff here. He has injured his hand, and it’s in quite a gnarly cast, keeping it safe. So, we wish Jacob a speedy, speedy recovery, and we wish a happy birth to Katie Brooks, our marketing director. She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl today … yesterday, excuse me … Phoebe. So, we wish her the best of luck, and we’re going to miss her for the next three months while she’s on maternity leave, but she and her expanding family are in our thoughts and prayers. So, with that, if you have any new pop culture ideas and things that you want to hear about on these podcasts, please email us at media@edchoice.org. Subscribe to this podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Please give us a follow on our social media pages @edchoice, again that’s @edchoice, and if you go to our website, you can sign up for our email at www.edchoice.org. So, with that everybody, I wish you a good day on this Thursday. Probably by the time you hear it, it’ll be Friday or maybe Monday, but it’s Thursday here in the studio. So, I wish you all a good weekend, and have a great month of April.